The St. Helena Chamber of Commerce is pushing for the establishment of a self-imposed assessment on commercial property owners that it says would provide stable funding for maintenance, beautification and marketing programs.
Chamber officials are proposing a “Greater St. Helena Area Property Based Improvement District” (PBID) which they say would raise about $700,000 a year and eliminate the need for the city’s annual Chamber contract, which is $210,000 for the current fiscal year.
The city’s Chamber contract used to be based on a formula that would sometimes produce less than $100,000, but recent councils have opted instead for a flat rate of around $200,000 to pay for destination marketing and the operation of the Chamber’s Welcome Center.
The Chamber says the PBID would relieve the city’s general fund of that annual expense. In addition to the marketing services the city currently funds, the PBID money could be used for maintenance and beautification projects such as cleaning up the elm tunnel, repairing sidewalks, power-washing Main Street, providing holiday decorations, new benches or improved crosswalks.
It could also pay for professional services to boost economic vitality, recruit businesses and guide them through the permitting process.
There are dozens of similar improvement districts in California, the nearest being in downtown Napa, where the Napa Downtown Association funds marketing efforts, sidewalk and garage cleaning, hanging flower baskets, and enhanced rooftop and Christmas lighting.
“Communities like Truckee have seen their beautification efforts increase, and everybody thinks it must be the city,” said Marcus Marquez, chair of the Chamber’s Board of Directors. “But it’s the PBIDs that are funding that.”
“This is a solution that’s been tested again and again,” he added. “We’re not going to be the guinea pigs.”
The amount of the assessment would be based on parcel size, location in one of four zones, and frontage along Highway 29. Large commercial lots that border Highway 29 would pay the most, since they would reap the most benefits.
The assessment would apply to commercial landowners along St. Helena’s commercial corridor and extending outside the city limits as far as Brasswood to the north, Whitehall Lane to the south, and Meadowood to the east. The city itself, as a major landowner, would have to pay about $95,000 a year, including $40,000 for the Adams Street property.
The affected property owners would have to approve the assessment through a two-step process: the submittal of petitions from the property owners who would collectively pay for more than 50 percent of the total assessment cost (equal to about $350,000), and then a weighted ballot process in which each property owner would get one vote.
Chamber CEO/President Pam Simpson said the Chamber has been working on the plan for months, and she’s confident that it has sufficient support among commercial property owners.
“We wouldn’t have brought this forward if we didn’t have a consensus,” she said. “The whole reason we did this is that some property and business owners came to us after the sales tax was proposed. They said, ‘We have to do something. What can we do to help ourselves?’”
The Chamber is reaching out to residents through a flier that appeared in local mailboxes and a series of open houses scheduled for March 6-10.
City councilmembers made the creation of the PBID a priority at their Feb. 4 goal-setting workshop. Chamber officials plan to submit their proposal to the city next week. Simpson said the Chamber’s goal is to form the PBID by July 31 so that the assessment would take effect Jan. 1, 2018.
The revenue would be doled out by a new nonprofit PBID board set up in accordance with state law, with some seats elected by the assessed landlords and other seats available to business owners and representatives of the city and county. The community enhancements directed by the PBID board would be carried out by the Chamber.
Unlike the petition and ballot process, board votes would not be weighted based on who pays the most. Board meetings would be open to the public and subject to the Brown Act, the state’s open meetings law.
While the cost of the assessments theoretically could be passed from landlords to their tenant businesses and on to customers, Simpson said many landlords have already said they wouldn’t pass on the cost to their tenants.
She said the PBID would guarantee a stable funding source that’s insulated from economic ups and downs.
“It makes us independent of the city funding and it makes us stable,” Simpson said. “The most important piece is that stability.”